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Senior College Football Columnist

Getting, keeping multitudes of 5-star players key for Bama's Saban

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The easiest thing is to bail. To let your ego get the best of you. So when you see other former blue-chippers getting more playing time or guys you knew from the recruiting trail and noticed how they're getting featured and you're not and you're hearing people muttering about how you may be a bust, would you go for the reset button? It's an issue that happens inside many big-time programs.

Handling a surplus of four and five-star recruits for a program sounds like a good problem to have, and it is. But it can lead to a thorny situation when pride and insecurity collide. Alabama, like a few of the country's top programs, seems to collect blue-chip recruits. At Saturday's BCS title game media day, the stars of the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide stood in front of podiums surrounded by reporters and camera crews. Up in the stands were the rest of the team's players. One of those guys sitting in the seats was Brent Calloway.

Two years ago, Calloway was one of the hottest names in recruiting in the Class of 2011. A running back-linebacker, he was listed as the top prospect in the state of Alabama and was anointed as a five-star recruit.

Calloway says he was offered a scholarship by the Crimson Tide in his sophomore year of high school. He later committed to Alabama, but then de-committed, opting for arch-rival Auburn, and then did another 180 and signed with Alabama.

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"There was a lot of turmoil going on, a lot of accusations going on," he said. "The night after I de-committed when I switched to Auburn and the next day, those were my worst two days. That's when all the mail was coming in through my Facebook, my phone, Twitter -- everything you can think of was just blowing up. Good and bad, and from bad to worse. People were threatening to come to my house. I got a lot of threats. But my family and my dad helped me tremendously.

"It really didn't bother me as much as it should have, but it did bother me. It is a lot to handle."

This is part of the life of the blue-chip recruit, or at least it can be.

Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Calloway has faded from the spotlight. He redshirted in 2011 and has bounced between running back, linebacker and H-back while also excelling on special teams. As a running back, he's gained 63 yards on 10 carries this season. As a special teamer, he has made eight tackles. Meanwhile, the freshman back at Alabama that everyone talks about is T.J. Yeldon, who has run for 1,021 yards and averages 6.5 yards per carry as the complement to bruiser Eddie Lacy (1,182 rushing yards and 16 TDs). There also are other gifted backs with varying strengths in the mix. And, of course, there are more stud running backs on the way. The Tide holds commitments from three supposedly big-time backs. Calloway, though, says he's very comfortable with the situation.

"I feel like coach Saban is the best coach in the nation," Calloway said Saturday. "He is a smart man and he knows exactly what he's doing, and I feel like this is the best place for me to further my career to get to where I want to go. And if I have to wait, I just have to be patient so I can learn and develop.

"When I was getting recruited I wasn't sold on just playing automatically. I was sold on learning what I need to do to develop and then playing. Last year, I when I redshirted, I needed to learn some things to get in the groove of things and now that I have done that, I feel like I'm in the right place.

"Here, it's all about timing and doing the things right. If you don't want to come and work and develop before you get on the field then this is not the place for you. It's all about patience here. We're not a selfish team. I'm for the team also. If T.J.'s doing great, great. Let him do it. That's fine with me. To come in as a freshman and do the things he's doing, I'm proud of him."

Calloway's comments are consistent with the mentality that Saban has developed in Tuscaloosa.

"It’s about the culture," says former five-star offensive tackle recruit Cyrus Kouandijo. "Everybody buys in. You can't really be selfish here."

The mentality feeds itself. Coaches preach teamwork, buying into the process and trusting the system. Having a track record of Saban's three BCS titles in the past decade certainly doesn't hurt when it comes to hammering the point home. These seeds were planted years ago, and now, the upperclassmen echo the message.

"There is no sense of entitlement at all," says running backs coach Burton Burns of this year's Crimson Tide squad. At Alabama, there is no better example of the Alabama Way than Burns' running back room. In addition to a ferocious defense, one of the trademarks of Nick Saban's powerhouse has been a relentless deep stable of running backs and the transition from one star back to the next has been seamless.

"During the recruiting process we are very up front with them and those guys are smart enough to know what they are getting themselves into," Burns explained. "In my position specifically, they know that we're going to play a lot of guys, so I want them to understand that, and to come to work every day and not let that affect them. We have been really fortunate to have the right personalities to do that.

"We've always had one guy that sets the tempo in terms of what it takes to be a running back at the University of Alabama and not to be selfish. Play your role. Take it very seriously. Be ready for the moment. When I first got there, it was Glen Coffee, and he took care of Mark Ingram and then Mark took care of Trent Richardson and then Trent took care of Eddie, and Eddie Lacy is taking care of T.J. [Yeldon]."

It is also easier to grasp the big picture when everyone around you seems to do it. Lacy, a 220-pound junior who picked Alabama over Oklahoma, Tennessee and home state LSU, among others, says, "You know if you can buy into it, you can be very successful. It's all about actually listening to the coach and the older players and taking little things here and there and applying the little things to your playing style."

For Calloway, the transition to the college level hasn't been so smooth.

"I've been through a lot of position changes," he says, looking down at the media circling his teammates on the field. "I don't really know the offense as well as I should right now because of all the position changes."

Asked whether he expects he'll ultimately end up as a running back, linebacker or H-back, Calloway paused for a few seconds.

"I have no clue. I don't really know which one is my best position.

"I'm here for coach [Saban] to put me wherever he needs to put me to be a successful player and to help the team. And I'm all for whatever his decision is."


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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